February 13, 2012
Bear with me if you will…
A couple years ago, my wife and I fell in love with a 1950’s, California-style bungalow that was to become our next home. Notwithstanding the fact that buying a California-style house in the Province of Quebec is something of an oxymoron, we nevertheless knew that we would have to remodel the kitchen before the new home would suit our tastes. Actually, the entire house had to be remodelled, but that’s another story altogether.
So we laid plans for the new kitchen, ergonomically yet stylishly positioning appliances and cabinets until we were satisfied the physical location of each could not be improved. But there remained one vital aspect of the new kitchen’s functionality that had yet to be addressed: the coffee-making process. You should know I am a slave to this neat, shiny Italian espresso machine that feeds me a cup of mood-enhancing magic each morning. Trust me: a coffee-deprived Phil makes Hannibal Lecter look like the Smurfette.
My first inclination was to put the coffee-maker right there, easy to get to. And won’t it look good from the dining room? And relatively speaking, that’s where it used to sit in the old house, so I can just go through the same motions I used to, which in the morning, when your eyes are still glued together, isn’t a bad thing. And that’s when my wife stepped in. Not being a coffee-drinker herself and knowing that interfering with my coffee-making process could seriously harm our relationship, she had kept to herself until then. But she couldn’t remain silent any longer. Actually, she never can, but that’s yet another story altogether. She delicately commented that all I was doing was re-implementing the same workflow I had back in our old house, where I used to complain every single morning (she exaggerates a lot, too!) about the coffee-machine being here, the spoons on the other side of the fridge, the cups way over there, not to mention the sink, on the opposite side of the kitchen. As a result, every morning, a severely under-caffeinated Phil was making several feverish trips through the kitchen to get the java ready. Not good.
And that’s when I had an epiphany: why not remodel my working area according to the purpose it had to fulfill? For a moment there, I really thought I was a genius! At which point my wife just said “Duh!” (she has a way with words) and I snapped back into reality. Still, my mind had now shifted from Infrastructure Design to Workflow Improvement.
Ah ha! There was a point to this rather long-winded preamble after all!
When it comes to the workplace, people are often under the wrongful impression that workflow improvements require the hiring of a professional (i.e. overpaid) consultant to re-evaluate every single thing that goes on in the office and tell you how to fix it. While that approach may have some merit, it’s time-consuming, costly and generally inefficient as it has to fight the natural human resistance to large-scale change. If you try to change everything at once, I can pretty much assure you you’ll be facing mutiny from a squadron of colleagues armed with paperclips. And those hurt.
I personally use a very simple method for workflow improvements. I have found it to be easy to apply and even easier to explain. It is based on three rules of thumb:
- First, think small. Don’t try to solve everything at once, you’re not going to save your organization a zillion dollars and be named employee of the month, so focus on little things… like I did with my coffee-making process.
- Second, improve what you know. Never ever try to tell someone else how they should improve their own workflow. They might get physical with you… especially if they haven’t had their morning coffee yet.
- Third, think over the long run. Once you’ve got a solution to improve a particular workflow, sit back and try to envision if that’s really how you want to be doing things for the next few years. Because once force of habit kicks in, you’ll have a tendency to go through the motions just like you did with the old workflow and you probably won’t be revisiting it for another ten years.
To get a better feel of how the method can be applied, let’s put it to use on a mundane workplace example and see how it turns out.
- Start with something small: identify something you do repetitively. That’s harder than it sounds because, just like coffee-making, you do those things automatically, without thinking. By the way, having someone else observe your way of working is usually an eye-opener. They’ll notice all those little things you do on auto-pilot. Don’t ask them to fix it, just to point them out. They might, for instance, notice that you print about 20 documents a day, with your printer located 20 feet from your desk because there is no network jack located any closer to it. Not a big thing, right? But let’s start from this rough – but realistic – assessment of the current workflow.
- Improve things you know: you know that on average, getting up from you chair, retrieving the document from the printer and sitting back at your desk takes you 10 seconds. Doing so twenty times a day means you spent 200 seconds of your day retrieving those documents. Again, not a big thing, right? Yet, over an entire year, that eventually translates into over 11 hours! And that’s a recurrent cost. Given your hourly wages, wouldn’t it be wise to go to your boss with this and demonstrate that the one-time cost of installing a network jack next to your desk would be economically sound?
- Think over the long run: this is a bit more challenging. If your IT department does install a network jack next to your desk, one of your co-workers may now have to walk farther to retrieve her documents. That would void the benefits you reaped, which is why you have to analyze not only the immediate consequences, but the not-so-immediate ones as well. Having two separate, smaller printers might be the ultimate solution, in this instance.
Even better, you might want to question why the documents have to be printed in the first place. Couldn’t some of them be archived electronically, sent via email or delivered on-line, nowadays? Aren’t there systems that could be implemented to automatically route a document to its destination, according to simple business rules? Remember: just because you always printed the documents doesn’t mean they actually have to be printed. It might all be part of a legacy process, implemented back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and portable computers were the size of small pick-up trucks. Not to mention that not printing some of these documents might actually be improving someone else’s workflow (after all, someone has to deliver, file or even shred them at some point).
One argument I’ve heard against this method is that it aims too low and it doesn’t address large-scale issues that are obvious. But that’s precisely the point. Those obvious issues are usually someone else’s (because you’re efficient, of course!), so let that someone worry about them, and focus on your own, tiny, seemingly insignificant workflows.
The next time you want to implement workflow improvements in your workplace, don’t start a panic by calling a departmental meeting with flowcharts, powerpoints and financial graphs explaining how this is going to save millions. It won’t. Start by following the above three rules of thumb. If you and your coworkers each save your organization a mere 11 hours per year – and in the process, make everyone’s job easier – your boss will love you, you’ll be happier and you’ll have more time to do other things. Like having a cup of coffee.
Oh, and how did my kitchen turn out, you ask? Well I’ll tell you about it some other time, but know that the coffee is just perfect!